#51 Rethinking Pomp and Circumstance

It is the season for graduates to proudly strut their stuff across the stage as they collect their hard-earned diplomas. Gowns flow; mortarboards perch precariously on heads; the band plays; and family, friends, and faculty look on. A guest speaker sends the graduates into their new world with words of wisdom. One by one, the names of graduates are called. Each one gets his or her time to walk across the stage and shake the hands of perhaps the college the president, a board member, or the commencement speaker. An official photographer captures the moment for posterity. The final graduate draws a large applause and the band strikes up the recessional and the gathered participants march with dignity to the exits.

It is a time-honored tradition–and it might have meet its end.

I pose the question: Is it time to reconsider the tradition? That is, should we consider replacing the ceremony with a more meaningful ritual–one that would truly have pomp and circumstance?

I am not an anti-traditionalist. Truth be told, what is passing for commencement ceremonies is doing little to honor the tradition. I raise the question after having sat through nearly 30 graduation ceremonies as a faculty member. I AM very happy for the students. I AM glad to be a part of this very special day. It IS an honor.

But what I have been witnessing over the years is a very slow degradation of the ceremony–and the creep to the mundane has turned to a sprint. Today, from my perspective, the ceremony seems to be done simply because–well, simply because that is way it has always been done. Perhaps the colleges and universities have become complacent in their planning. Perhaps it is a reflection of a cultural shift. I am not sure. But I can say as an interested participant, the ceremony lacks pomp and there is not much circumstance.

A recent graduation ceremony was illustrative. The assembled family and friends were rightfully proud of their graduates. But there wasn’t much consideration given for other graduates. Noise makers and screams more suited for a wrestling match or football game bounced around the arena. Most distressing was something I never had witnessed in previous ceremonies–at least not to this degree. Graduates were leaving en masse after they received their diplomas. Some returned to their seats, pulled out their cell phones, looked around the room for family and friends, texted something, and then got up and left–as fellow students were moving toward the stage. Others walked across the stage and then right out the exit. Still others decided to leave but rather than making a quiet exit to the rear, actually walked toward the stage–passing graduates still waiting in line for their diplomas–and exited to the side of the commencement stage!

So what is going on here? Consider:

• Faculty are constantly accused of doing the same thing (methodologically speaking) year after year. Some critics claim teachers do not understand how the “new” student learns. But those planning graduation seem to be doing the same thing year after year. Are they assessing the ceremony and audience needs?

• There is research that suggests that within 10 to 15 minutes of a lecture’s beginning most people have tuned out. (See John Medina’s book Brain Rules.) Having said that, what is a graduation but one long lecture?

A recent ceremony stretched out nearly three hours! I am not sure how many of the graduates felt particularly “special.” By the end of the ceremony, a bare handful of students and audience remained. There were probably more faculty remaining than new graduates.

No, we cannot control everything a person/crowd does. If someone wants to exhibit boorish behavior, he or she will find a way. But what we could do is make the ceremony so riveting–so compelling–that very few would even consider interrupting it or leaving early.

Rather than kill the ceremony–which one can argue has already been done in one way or another–let’s rework it so that it is truly a special day. Maybe that means going smaller. Maybe the venues need to change. Since colleges and universities have jumped aboard the virtual classroom bandwagon, maybe we should consider a virtual graduation. Maybe it means making the event an EVENT!

Video recommendation for the week:

Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” can bring chills to an audience–but what about adding a respectful twist. Give a listen to another version of the time-honored graduation song. Kind of Jimi Hendrix meets graduation…kind of…

I’m just saying….we need to look at some other options. Put it all on the table and consider what is best for the dignity of the event–and consider the most appropriate way to honor our students. I am sure they deserve that.

© Steve Piscitelli and Steve Piscitelli’s Blog, 2011.

About stevepiscitelli

Community Advocate-Author-Pet Therapy Team Member
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4 Responses to #51 Rethinking Pomp and Circumstance

  1. jeff says:

    The EXACT same experience at Palm Beach State, and I couldn’t agree more. Nice call.


  2. Pingback: A Blogger’s Retrospective: 2011 in Review « Steve Piscitelli's Blog

  3. Rena says:

    I noticed this too when I worked at a graduation last year. Graduates were leaving and I thought it was over but it was only half way done. I’m agreeing especially since I’m graduating soon, that I would like to see more excitement in a graduation ceremony.


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